Dirty South Bureau

January 23, 2010

The pathology of elections, episode II – the empire strikes back

Filed under: New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,public housing,The Feds — christian @ 4:09 pm

It’s that time again.

Election season. Which in New Orleans seems to be about every three months or so. This election season finds me particularly pessimistic about any possibility of any change for the better. Perhaps it is the quagmires at the national level around health care “reform” and carbon regulation. From those of us who said during the presidential election that Obama would not bring the change we need, well, I for one didn’t want to be right on this one, but Obama is looking more like a black Jimmy Carter by the day.

But the real news is the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow corporations unlimited access to finance campaigns. This one has to go down with Plessy v. Ferguson as one of the most monstrous decisions ever made by those miserable old black-robed bastards. Whatever Democracy you thought we had, kiss it goodbye.

But how much Democracy did we have to lose, anyway? We voted every few months or years for elected officials with limited powers, and then most of us spent eight hours (or more) a day in a dictatorship. Did you vote for your boss? Your landlord? Your mortgage company? The oil companies that cut canals through South Louisiana, destroying our coast? We took one small part of public life and held elections for people to run it, and then left the rest to that “invisible hand” of the market that’s been slapping more and more people out of their homes and into unemployment lines of late.

Here in New Orleans, that Democracy has meant even less. Before the storm 40% of adults couldn’t read or write well enough to fill out a job application. I don’t know what the number is now, but there is a large portion of this city whose education level precludes meaningful participation. As if, between the political machines of the city, the tendency for race/class based castes to reproduce and the factors that I already mentioned, there was much to participate in.

This is part of our pathology of elections in America. We have been bamboozled into thinking that politics only happen on election day and only happen through elected offices. Politics happen every day. They happen when we go to work, they shape our intimate relations, they are there when we pay rent and when we pay bills. And these relations are typically not Democratic.

I’m still going to vote, to exercise what little power I have and to make what little statement I can. At least I can say I voted before corporations ran that, too. But for city offices, this is a grim election. My professional work prevents me from saying much of what I would like to about various candidates, which is not pretty. Isn’t that the way it works? The more you know, the less you are at liberty to talk, as you may have to do business with these people some day.

Notes on particular races:

Mayor: We all know Mitch is our next Mayor. At least he’ll be better than Nagin, and this office doesn’t give him authority to screw us in the same ways that his sister does. I’m voting for James Perry, who is a hell of a guy. He won’t win, but any percentage that he gets makes a more meaningful statement to me than victory or loss by other candidates.

City Council: I find myself, over and over, not voting for people, but against them. Particularly in District B. Seven years ago I participated in an abortive effort to recall Renee Gill-Pratt. Look who we got instead. District C: Can we get another option? Please?

I would say that my frame for many of these races is the lesser of two evils, which, considering the level of evil involved, is weighty. My favourite people on the council had a group of former public housing residents, and me and my fellow protesters pepper-sprayed and tazered (I only got the spray, thanks guys!) two years ago, when we tried to keep them from authorizing the senseless destruction of thousands of units of livable housing during a region-wide housing crisis. All are guilty of participating in gross human rights violations against New Orleanians displaced by post-Katrina flooding.

On a side note, at least district A has some interest in energy policy issues. Fielkow seems to take these matters seriously as well. He’s my favourite person who’s ever had me pepper sprayed. Real decent guy in person, under better circumstances.

But as I stated before, I’m not pinning my hopes on any of these people. When this city, this state and this country made real change for the better, it took a long, slow process of education and organizing. Short cuts don’t work for the long run. If we want to see the change we need, this is what it will take – not electing someone from an oppressed group to be the figurehead for machines of oppression.

And that’s all for today. See y’all in a bit, hopefully before I have to find corporate sponsorship for this blog. Remember – what you read, and if you have access to read it, is also politics.

August 20, 2009

Morris X. Jeff, equity and the future

Filed under: Class,Mid-City,New Orleans Schools,Race — christian @ 12:04 am

I left the party at Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club tonight with a mix of emotions; both hope, sadness and a little ennui. Tonight the organization that is attempting to open a public school in the Bayou St. John neighborhood of Mid-City held a fundraiser, with support from Zulu and a range of local restaurants. Kermit Ruffins even played.

The crowd was an interesting mix. The people I knew were a mixture of educators, a few education bureaucrats, friends and family of the organizers and Morris X Jeff (the man for whom the school is named), social justice activists and some Zulu leaders. On a plaque in the corner was a statement of the values of the proposed school, that spoke to focus on inclusiveness and equity as well as academic excellence.

These values were reiterated by Brod Bagert, Jr., the president of Morris X Jeff Community Coalition. In his speech, he set forth a compelling vision of overcoming the failures of the old school system, and made some bold statements. He said that excellence and exclusivity were often spoken of in the same breath, and that they were out to create a school that proves that you can be both excellent and inclusive. Were it someone other than Bagert, I would think that he was simply pandering, but Bagert’s work as a community organizer and advocate for low-income communities precedes him. Before him, Educator Davina Allen, the vice-president of the coalition, spoke movingly about her parents’ journey from poverty in rural Jamaica to becoming successful professionals due to the possibilities created by the island nation’s education system.

I could not agree more with the vision Bagert and Allen set forth. There is only one problem: this goes against the entire history of the education system in New Orleans.

When I worked for the American Federation of Teachers in working to re-establish United Teachers of New Orleans, I thought that by defending the educational system against free-market restructuring, that I would be fighting for educational equity. It was a value that we preached, and that I continue to believe in. Certainly the new forms that were being set up were not equitable; after all the charters, poised as they are to compete against each other, are finding ways to get rid of the children who might bring down their precious test scores. And our educational vouchers, championed by Rep. Austin Badon from New Orleans East, are taking money that can and should be used to create a quality public educational system to subsidize unaccountable, elitist private options.

However the public educational system in New Orleans was not equitable before Katrina and in fact, to my knowledge, has never been equitable. Authors Joseph Logsdon and Donald DeVore give a compelling account of the failures of this system in their book Crescent City Schools. It’s a tragic history of underfunding and neglect for the education of African-Americans for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. After effective desegregation in the mid-1960′s, the system was again thrown into crisis, as white abandoned the public schools both by voting with their feet and refusing to support public funding for integrated schools. According to progressive educator and Vice-President of the Teachers’ Union Jim Randels, also damning was the move to city-wide magnet schools, which took the best students and left the majority of children in low-income neighborhoods behind in under-supported schools. Many will disagree on why, but the sad truth is that public schools in New Orleans have failed to live up to their promised role in the American dream, of supplying a quality education to all children.

Morris X. Jeff is currently applying for a charter. I’ve been very critical of charter schools in the past, and I feel I have good reason to do so. The charter school movement is complex, but here appears to be dominated by elements who are determined to privatize and remove any voice for teachers in the structuring of education (the ultimate arrogance of many operators is to think that people with no substantial educational background know better than teachers how to educate). More importantly, their model, based as it is upon competition, is fundamentally at odds with society-wide educational equity. Charter schools set out to create islands of excellence, and even when they succeed those islands will not address the other children left in the sea of failing schools.

But I am also loathe to suggest trying to opening a school either under the dysfunctional Recovery School District, or the Orleans Parish School Board, who do not seem to even want more schools to run. For the Morris X. Jeff community coalition, the options are complicated. Ultimately the organization was formed to open a school and they must work with the options they are given.

Many other educators whom I respect have taken the charter road, not the least of which is Principal Doris Hicks of Martin Luther King Junior Elementary. A union supporter, Hicks has been quite frank that it was a struggle to get the school open at all in the Lower 9th Ward and that opening it as a charter was the easiest way. There are those who have been vocally critical of post-storm educational restructuring and believe in collective bargaining on the board of McDonogh 42 charter as well.

I have to wonder if Bagert’s and Allen’s noble vision will survive the political realities of education in New Orleans, or the ancient and pernicious tendencies towards race and class stratification that so often define life in New Orleans. At the fundraiser, I saw a majority of white faces, and none of my former neighbors from the neighborhood situated between the Zulu Club and the old Morris X. Jeff. This gave me pause; but I also know the difficulties of engaging low-income populations, and the black neighborhood in Bayou St. John is far from affluent. However, to be a model that rises above the failures of the past, the Morris X. Jeff group will have to engage low-income African-Americans.

I believe that if anyone can successfully navigate the tortured post-Katrina education system and create a quality, equitable school, it will be Bagert and Allen, with the support of Zulu, the people in that room, and the others behind the Morris X. Jeff Community Coalition. I hope and pray they succeed.

August 25, 2008

More Thoughts on Education, Tough, Charters and Teachers

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Schools — christian @ 6:00 am

Judging from the comments that I have received both in person and online, I feel the need to clarify and go deeper into some of the issues that I have discussed both on this blog and on the Rising Tide III Education Panel, and to dispel some misunderstandings.

First off, I am not against new (and young) teachers coming to New Orleans. Some of the people who I count as personal friends, such as Jeffrey Berman, who I sat next to on the Rising Tide Educational Panel, are new teachers. These people are taking on a noble and extremely difficult task. They deserve a level of support that they are not getting either from the RSD or from many charter organizations. Over and over again, in my conversations with new teachers, they are the first to tell me that they need effective professional development and mentoring, which they are absolutely not getting in the RSD or in some of the charters.

I do think that bringing in large numbers of inexperienced teachers as the cure-all for the system’s ills is just plain wrong. First off, it goes contrary to test score data, which problematic as it is, is among the most relevant “objective” data available. But more, the logic behind this solution of bringing in mostly white, ivy-league educated teachers to replace a mostly black, native New Orleanian teacher force appears to be driven by latent cultural imperialism. As a veteran New Orleans teacher once told me, he saw it as “the great Bawana coming in to save the ignorant country teachers”.

There were bad teachers before the storm. There are bad employees in every field. However, blaming the pre-storm teachers for the state of the schools in New Orleans is one of the critical mistakes that is guiding the so-called “reform” going on in New Orleans schools.

In one small example, I recall about a year ago receiving a press clipping from an Alabama paper congratulating a transplanted New Orleans teacher on winning teacher of the year. This man, who was both a teacher of multiple subjects and a football coach, had not missed a day of work in over thirty years. He is among those who was fired after the storm when he was displaced, and now we’ve lost him. Way to go, Cecil Picard, Leslie Jacobs, Ann Duplessis et al.

In many cases, what I heard from teachers who taught elsewhere after the storm is remarkably similar to what I heard from students who went to school elsewhere- that they were amazed at the resources and environment offered to them to work in, and that they inevitably had reservations about returning to the awful conditions back in New Orleans.

This is what was most missing from Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine article. He quoted plenty of academic bureaucrats, think-tankers and other “experts”, but very few teachers. I do not recall reading the comments of a single veteran teacher in his article, and this is likely why he seemed to have little idea what actually goes on in New Orleans schools. To dismiss their years of experience and scapegoat them for a failed system is simply inexcusable, and Paul Tough’s work deserves to be condemned for the omission of their voices more than anything.

Second, I am not categorically against charter schools. This may surprise some of you, and I have been attacked both from the left and the right on this issue. We absolutely needed educational reform in New Orleans pre-storm. Some teachers I have talked to prefer working in charter schools and say that in their charter administration is more accessible and they feel free to innovate in ways they could not in a traditional school. I am sure there are some significant advantages to decentralization, though there are also serious drawbacks that I have gone into in previous posts.

But that does not mean that I am willing to drink the Kool-Aid and declare the chartering of the vast majority of the schools in Orleans Parish a success. It’s appalling that this is what has happened in the media in New Orleans and nationally. I stand by my earlier comments that much of what we are getting is through the media pure hype and well-managed PR. The data is just not there to back the “success” of the charter schools, nor does it match the personal experience of teachers, students and parents who I have met.

It’s shameful that anyone who raises some of the very significant issues about charter schools is attacked as a defender of the old system. Frankly, this is the sort of group-think that the right has used in such situations as the Iraq War, again backed by the New York Times (two for two, guys?). Those opposed to the Iraq War were told to either “support the troops” or that they were supporting the terrorists.

Same thing here, where the small minds are saying either that we declare both the replacement of teaching populations and the charter school experiment successes without even looking closely at them or that we are the enemies of progress. What if, like the Iraq War, these big experiments are massive failures? What if, like the Iraq War, they are guided by faulty, ideologically-driven information and lies?

Sorry, folks, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid. I’ve talked to too many teachers, parents and students. Bring me results. In the mean time, start listening to the teachers, and not just the new ones.

August 24, 2008

Rising Tide III

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Schools,Other — christian @ 1:34 pm

I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to stay for all of Rising Tide III yesterday. And I don’t just have such a high opinion of New Orleans’ annual blogger conference because I was a panelist on the education panel. Not at all. First off, it was great to run into all the local bloggers and media-makers: G-Bitch, Patrick, Loki, Alan, Liprap, Oyster, Bart Everson, even Schroeder.

Second, the keynote speech by author John Berry, who wrote the original Rising Tide about the Great Flood of 1927, was amazing. I was thrilled to get to ask the man himself questions about the impact of the aftermath of the flood on the rise of southern populist leaders like Huey Long.

The few panels which I was able to catch were also excellent. I was particularly honored to be able to sit on the education panel with such an accomplished scholar as Leigh Dingerson from the Center for Community Change, but also the people who know so much from first-hand experience such as Cliff, G-Bitch and Jeffrey Berman. Getting to talk to Nation author and former Gambit Weekly editor Michael Tisserand definitely capped the day off.

But I must also note for the various bloggers covering this conference that I no longer work for United Teachers of New Orleans, so please do not list me as such.

August 19, 2008

Dark days for both public education and truth

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,We Are Not OK — christian @ 2:16 am

First off, a disclaimer. I am no longer working for United Teachers of New Orleans, as I have been for over a year. So while all the content on this blog was only ever my personal opinion and in no way reflected the positions of the union, well, now it does even less.

Today the School Facilities Master Plan was finally unveiled after months of waiting… or was it? I got a press packet from my good friend RSD Communications Director Siona LaFrance that contained a slim, vague jumble of papers; apparently the details will be released at the school board meeting at McDonogh 35 tomorrow and then made public the following day.

For the best description of what little we do know about the Master Plan I have to again refer you to Eli Ackerman of the blog We Could Be Famous.

We’re shrinking the footprint again. I had the pleasure today of hearing a fascinating exchange between Eli and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, who must the be the most overpaid, under-qualified bureaucrat in the state. Basically it went something like this…

Pastorek: “Those places where we rebuild schools, they will serve as catalysts for neighborhood recovery.”

Ackerman: “So then what is going to happen to neighborhoods where we don’t rebuild schools? By extension, does that mean that if we don’t provide public services like schools, that this will discourage people from rebuilding those neighborhoods?”

Pastorek: “Well, I don’t think the placement of schools will have an effect on all areas of the city… high schools would not be a geographic attractor.”

There we have it in perfect bureaucratese, the sort of sublime logic that only those who make more than $300,000 a year can really understand. Where we build schools, people will come back to those neighborhoods. Where we don’t rebuild schools… oh well, that doesn’t really matter, does it? After all, we’re going to have these “magnet-like” schools…

On another front, last Thursday Paul Tough of the New York Times published a perfect piece of bullshit that I only now have come across. I talked to Paul when I worked for UTNO, and I recall how out of touch he was about the realities of New Orleans schools. He appeared to have no idea that the overwhelming majority of our public school students were low-income African Americans, and also did not seem to grasp the historical role of de-investment in the incredible inequities around education here.

But hey, I guess you don’t have to be too much of an intellectual to work for the New York Times Magazine, do you?

It was enough for Tough to know that 1. schools were really bad before Katrina (no shit) and 2. the free market is great.

Maybe I have just not been smoking from the same Neoliberal bong that Paul has. Maybe I am burdened by the knowledge that experienced teachers make a significant difference in test scores, and that these ivy-league kids with TFA largely don’t have any idea how to manage a class? Or perhaps it is what really shouldn’t be inside knowledge for someone who calls himself a journalist- that the RSD and many of the charters are terrible messes.

Despite all the hype, test scores have not appreciably risen from pre-storm levels. Yes, they improved over last year- but I seriously hope so, given the abysmal chaos of the RSD under Robin Jarvis when the school takeover architects in their infinite wisdom decided they could run a district with half a dozen people as their main office staff.

What Vallas has accomplished he has largely done by more than doubling per-pupil expenditures, mostly by spending one-time monies that are supposed to be going to long-term needs and infrastructure. Give any urban school district in the country that kind of fiscal injection and you are going to see improvement.

But while Vallas has shrunk student-teacher ratios and brought technology into the classroom, he has also failed to fix basic problems. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that RSD professional development is a bad joke, run by salespeople and consultants who largely have no classroom experience. The implementation of the much-publicized technology like the “promethian boards” is abysmal; half the time it just doesn’t work. The discipline policy is toothless, where it is actually enforced. The paperwork errors are legion: in one small example a teacher friend of mine called me tonight and explained to me that the RSD had lost the 11th grade records for a large number of her former students, and has been sending them as seniors back to 11th grade classes.

And the charters? The great wunderkind of public education? Please. Again, most of them have no idea how to handle discipline. A third of teachers in Algiers think their merit-pay scheme TAP should be scrapped, and another third think it should be overhauled. And among the wonders of their decentralized model of education is a situation where no school can afford retiree health care for their employees because they’ve lost the economy of scale that a real school district has.

Charters have largely made what improvements they can claim in test scores by creaming their student populations via a combination of backdoor selective admissions and “soft expulsion”, where the parents of troublesome kids are “encouraged” to pull their kids out so the school won’t have to expel them. This, and their ability to attract private funding.

But don’t believe the hype or the Times-Picayune headlines. Even with these advantages, many of the charters have not improved their test scores, and charter schools here, when you take the test scores of the same schools pre-storm, have largely dropped in performance. This echoes national trends, that charter schools perform on average slightly below regular public schools in standardized test scores.

But again, none of this seems to bother Paul Tough, who is busy chasing down attractive 23-year old ivy leaguers and falling head over heels for their dedication to saving the ignorant savages of New Orleans.

Here’s another story that didn’t make it in to any of these reports: the RSD basically drove out the internationally renowned writing program Students At the Center (SAC) with a combination of neglect, bungling and outright hostility. This year there is no SAC at Frederick Douglass High School in the 9th ward, and the “reformer” Vallas and his cronies who he put in charge of academics, many of whom are overpaid consultants with no educational experience, are to blame.

Paul Tough basically swallowed the PR of New Schools for New Orleans hook, line and sinker, and came up with the sort of dross that Sam Winston was writing for Gambit Weekly before I took him to Einstein Charter in the fall of ’07 to see how badly a school that has no real accountability can go. Tough should know better; he is a professional. I have to wonder; did he even talk to any teachers who weren’t recent TFA graduates?

This sort of shallow, ideologically loaded work is the reason that people in the rest of the country have no idea what is going on here.

May 30, 2008

Scattered Notes May 30

Filed under: Class,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 5:55 pm

A lot has gone down since the server that housed my blog went out. The big news:

The lawsuit to re-open Charity Hospital went to its first hearing in Civil District Court. Judge Ethel Simms Julien rejected LSU HSC-New Orleans claims that would have forced the case to go to court in Baton Rouge.

This is a big win. Baton Rouge may only be eighty-five miles away, but it’s another world in many respects. Baton Rouge judges have not been as sympathetic to these issues as our own have.

More by Justice Roars


Last week I also had the pleasure of meeting Eli Ackerman of the blog We Could Be Famous. I am impressed by his work, notably his filing of FOIA requests for the contracting process that landed Concordia and Parsons Engineering with the school facilities master plan contracts, requests that so far have resulted in his being stonewalled.

We Could Be Famous on Paul Vallas, Parsons and Concordia

Apparently Eli has a lot more time for research than I do, and thank God someone is doing it.


And lastly, there has been a leadership change at United Teachers of New Orleans (for the record: my day job) resulting in Larry Carter and Jim Randels being elected to President and Executive VP of UTNO.

UTNO website

May 12, 2008


Filed under: Bywater,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 12:45 am

My readers will pardon the delay with which I am passing on information about a fairly urgent situation. However, the sheer volume of work that the union has sent my way, plus the psychological exhaustion that comes from prolonged outrage have conspired to keep me from relaying this information clearly until now.

Ah, where to start?

Decision makers at the state level are planning on closing Frederick Douglass High School on St. Claude in the Upper 9th Ward. We know this for two reasons; one that no new freshmen were admitted last year, and that several weeks ago teachers at Douglass were pulled into a meeting and told that the school is being phased out.

The very way this is being done is sneaky and vague; likely because if these plans were publicly announced they could result in a huge PR problem for the RSD and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek.

But first, a bit about Douglass for those of you not familiar with the school.


Douglass High School

Frederick Douglass High School is in the 9th ward, on St. Claude between Pauline and Alvar. It’s in an old, poorly maintained but still beautiful pink art-deco building that straddles the block, across the street from Charles Drew Elementary. The names, Douglass and Drew, are more recent; those who grew up in the neighborhood in the 50’s and 60’s still remember them as Nicholls and Washington, respectively. Times change, demographics change, and with massive white flight, black power and a movement towards a recognition of black history, names change. I have only heard the process of renaming the school from that of a Confederate General to a radical trade unionist, former slave and abolitionist alluded to, and unfortunately have no concrete details for my readers.

The Ninth Ward (upper ninth, that is), with the exception of parts of the newly gentrified Bywater (between St. Claude and the river), is a low-income African American neighborhood with serious problems. The student body that goes to Douglass is almost exclusively black and almost exclusively free and reduced lunch. LEAP test scores are low, graduation rates are some of the lowest in the city.

It also has a lot of community support. Before the storm the Frederick Douglass Community Coalition was very active in school and the neighborhood surrounding it. The school is also one that participates in Kalamu Ya Salaam and Jim Randels’ nationally acclaimed writing program, Students at the Center (SAC). At Douglass, along with other public schools, Kalamu and Jim have been turning inner-city youth into writers and intellectuals for years now. It’s an incredibly hopeful and inspiring project.

Given the socio-economic status of the neighborhood, it would be extremely unlikely for Douglass not to have problems. But many people in the community support the school and see it as a place where there is a struggle to improve things for the children of the 9th.


The Plan to close Douglass

We are not sure who is behind this plan, but Pastorek would have to be massively out of touch to not know about it. As for RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas, he is likely not the originator of this plan but he is at least an accomplice, and has been making statements about the state’s designs for the school which range from dire to vague to downright contradictory.

Vallas claims that the decision not to bring in new freshmen in the ’07-’08 year was made before his tenure, which is probably true. However, I was at a BESE (state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) meeting a few months ago where he and his financial team brought forth the RSD capital improvements budgets, and there was a very clear distinction between the schools that were to receive large amounts of funding for building renovations and those that weren’t. Douglass was among the schools that had very few funds allotted to them. Maybe Vallas was counting on the assumption that no-one concerned about Douglass would be at that meeting, as it is held during the work day in Baton Rouge. However there is a plan in the RSD that specifically does not allocate funds for the repair of Douglass and a number of other schools, and to pretend otherwise is dishonest.

This all came to a head at a very disappointing meeting with Paul Vallas last Tuesday, a meeting that was shocking for the sheer level of disregard Vallas displayed towards a group of concerned community members and stakeholders. Now, given that I am used to official disregard for community concerns, but the powers that be usually do a better job of hiding this than Vallas did. And it was not just anyone that met at Douglass- this was a group that included Jim Randels and Kalamu Ya Salaam of SAC, Gwen Adams of ACORN, musician Charmaine Neville, Reggie Lawson of Crescent City Peace Alliance, teachers and students at Douglass, and neighbors who live within blocks of the school.

The meeting

First, Vallas showed up half an hour late. Now, here in New Orleans meetings rarely start on time. But thirty minutes was excessive by anyone’s standards. This was followed by a presentation by Vincent Nzinga of the RSD, who gave one of the more absurd speeches I’ve heard yet, where he tried to associate the spirit of Frederick Douglass with a criminal justice academy in the Lower 9th, planned to replace the art-deco building on St. Claude, because Frederick Douglass was a lawyer.

I feel the need to point out to Mr. Nzinga some facts that he is likely aware of: that the 13th amendment does not apply to those duly convicted of a crime, and that the incarcerated population in America, particularly in the south, is disproportionately black. Many of us have realized that in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, prison is the new slavery. And I feel the need to remind Mr. Nzinga that Frederick Douglass is primarily remembered not because he won a few court cases, but because he was an outspoken abolitionist.

I digress. This was followed by Mr. Vallas taking questions. Now, before we get too far into this, let me explain what a public meeting with Paul Vallas is like.

All of us got lungs at birth. Paul, he got lungs for, say, two or three people. The man can talk. Lord, he can talk. I’ve been at more public meetings with Paul Vallas than I can count. He talks, and talks, and talks. When people talk this much, you may think they have something important and/or profound to impart. However at the end of a meeting with Paul Vallas, one is often left with the realization that he has not committed to anything substantial except what he had already planned.

He also talks over people. Which he did quite a lot of at this meeting. To my knowledge no one has ever accused Paul Vallas of being a particularly good active listener. But this meeting was truly rare form.

Because this group wanted answers. Answers Mr. Vallas did not want to give.

He started off by dodging a question from a woman who had been teaching at Douglass for eight years and is temporarily in Illinois with her sick mother, questioning whether or not she was coming back. Vallas’ questioning the woman’s status was not received well by the crowd. Then Charmaine Neville got up and said that she knew a large number of tradesman and contractors who would be interested in working on the building for free. Vallas interrupted her to suggest that she bring them tomorrow to the school. Whether or not it was intended as so by Mr. Vallas, this was widely seen as a disrespectful brush-off and elicited hisses and angry remarks. But it was easy to see how. The entire meeting Vallas was defensive, awkward, angry.

At some point in the meeting (you will forgive my lack of chronology) Vallas passed out a brief report from Parsons Engineering which suggested that repairs to the school would be in the 30 million dollar range. Vallas repeatedly stated that he had no say in what would happen to the school building, saying that he only dealt with academics. For all of these questions, he referred us to the Master Plan.

Which brings me back to the rally to re-open Morris X. Jeff that I attended on Sunday April 6, 2008, where Torin Sanders of the OPSB (Orleans Parish School Board) stated that as much as he believes we should rebuild schools with that level of community support, that he’d have to refer to the Master Plan.

Master Plan? Many people in the meeting at Douglass were asking questions as they had never heard of a Master Plan.


Master Plan

At this point in the meeting I was able to clarify that the Master Plan that he refers to is the one being managed by Concordia Architects and Steven Bingler.

This is problematic for several reasons. One, Steven Bingler was sued by DeSoto Parish Schools in a situation that does not make Bingler and Concordia sound like very competent managers of school facilities.

Two, Steven Bingler is the brother-in-law of Sarah Usdin of New Schools For New Orleans (NSNO). It concerns me when you have those managing facilities with strong family ties to the heads of ideologically driven organizations like NSNO.

And you’ll have to pardon me, but I just don’t feel that NSNO has children’s best interests at heart, and I fear that ideology is clouding their vision. This is the group that, on their website, describes Katrina as an opportunity, and is spearheading bringing in large numbers of poorly-equipped recent Ivy League graduates to replace the veteran teachers in New Orleans. Multiple studies have shown that particularly in inner-city school districts, veteran teachers make a huge positive difference in test scores. But those like NSNO who are trying to replace a population because their analysis is that veteran teachers were the problem have ignored this data.

However, Bingler and his family connections are not the only problem here. Parsons Engineering has done quite a bit of work in Iraq, and the track record isn’t positive. A Washington Post reporter has described their Baghdad Police Academy, which literally rained feces from the ceiling, but this apparently is only one in a string of bad projects for Parsons.

To quote from the article:

“This is the most essential civil security project in the country — and it’s a failure,” said Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an independent office created by Congress. “The Baghdad police academy is a disaster.”

Bowen’s office plans to release a 21-page report Thursday detailing the most alarming problems with the facility.

Even in a $21 billion reconstruction effort that has been marred by cases of corruption and fraud, failures in training and housing Iraq’s security forces are particularly significant because of their effect on what the U.S. military has called its primary mission here: to prepare Iraqi police and soldiers so that Americans can depart.

Federal investigators said the inspector general’s findings raise serious questions about whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to exercise effective oversight over the Baghdad Police College or reconstruction programs across Iraq, despite charging taxpayers management fees of at least 4.5 percent of total project costs. The Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that it has initiated a wide-ranging investigation of the police academy project.

The report serves as the latest indictment of Parsons Corp., the U.S. construction giant that was awarded about $1 billion for a variety of reconstruction projects across Iraq. After chronicling previous Parsons failures to properly build health clinics, prisons and hospitals, Bowen said he now plans to conduct an audit of every Parsons project.

“The truth needs to be told about what we didn’t get for our dollar from Parsons,” Bowen said.

There are already too many parallels in disaster profiteering between Baghdad and the Gulf Coast.

I left the meeting early, but from what I hear Althea Strong of American Friends Service Committee tried to pin Vallas down to a promise to stand behind the community, a promise he wouldn’t make.

The long and the short is this: Don’t count on Vallas or anyone at the state level for help, and frankly you should not be lulled into waiting for this dubious Master Plan. For the Douglass community, you are going to have to fight to keep your school.

To quote Frederick Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

Blog entry by Jim Randels on this meeting

Save Frederick Douglass

January 12, 2007

More cops and more incarceration will not stop the killings

First off, I want to send out my deepest condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the violence here in New Orleans. To the family of Helen Hill and Dinerral Shavers, but also to the families of the six other people murdered since the first of the year whose names have not been in headlines, and to the families of the 161 people who were killed last year.

As some of you know, I did not attend the march on Thursday. I understand that many felt the need to march, but I personally do not go on marches where there is not a clear statement or demand being made. I do not want my presence used by policy-makers to justify something that I do not support.

From the meeting at Sound Cafe on Sunday, which I did attend, one thing was abundantly clear: that there was no consensus on what the demands of this march would be. Some in the crowd wanted more police on the street, one woman who says that she spends a lot of time on nola.com forums even proposed a state of emergency. While many other viewpoints were expressed, those are the ones that I fear will be heard from all of this.

So let’s have a real conversation about what will reduce violent crime in New Orleans.

Let’s talk first about what we have tried.

We already have 1,400 police on the street- 609 police per every 100,000 residents of New Orleans. Before the storm we had 1,668 police- 359 police per every 100,000 residents (figures courtesy of Michelle Krupa, Times-Picayune, Sunday 7th.)

The most recent data that I have found online (year 2000) indicates that we now have the highest per-capita number of police in any large or medium sized city except Washington D.C- more than New York, Chicago, or even Detroit or Baltimore, and more than twice the year 2000 per-capita numbers of Los Angeles and Houston. This number does not include the state police or national guard who are here indefinitely. (figures courtesy of the Department of Justice)

Our jails were full as well. Before the storm, we had 1.5% of the city locked up in OPP, giving us the highest incarceration rate of any large city, and the state incarceration rate was the highest in the nation. And the US incarceration rate is the highest in the world.

Despite the numbers of police and jails, we continue to have one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the nation. Incidentally, Washington DC, with all their cops, also has one of the highest per-capita murder rates.

So let’s talk about other related factors:

We had one of the highest rates of functional illiteracy in the country- around 40% according to the literacy alliance of greater New Orleans. Study after study shows that those who cannot read and write well are more likely to end up in prison (Literacy Behind Prison Walls, National Center for Education Statistics)

We continue to have some of the worst public schools in the country- some of which, like John McDonogh, have gotten worse since the state takeover.

Around 40% of children under the age of five in New Orleans were growing up in poverty before the storm- and the poor are more likely to end up in jail as well.

For decades we have had a surfeit of low-paying service industry jobs in this city, and little else. And from years working as a carpenter I can testify that racial discrimination in the construction trades- one of the few places where a person with limited education can make a decent living here- is rampant.

It is scant consolation to those who have lost loved ones, but what needs to be done to make this city safe will take time. We have to create a decent society where everyone has access to quality education, living wage jobs, and health care, including mental health care, a huge need post-Katrina.

The so-called “thugs”- or whatever other racially coded language you prefer- committing these crimes are largely young men. Many, like the seventeen year old who killed Dinerral Shavers, are teenagers. Perhaps you can remember what it was like to be a teenager- and the lack of caution that you had. These children are not afraid of death or jail, and it isn’t stopping them from picking up guns. You can put them in jail, you can even kill them, but more are on their way. As Ralph Ellison said, the most dangerous thing that a society can produce is a man who has nothing to lose. I would modify that to say that the most dangerous thing we can produce is children who have nothing to lose.

It will not be quick and it will not be easy. But if you want to stop the killings here you have to change society. The short-term solutions will not work. They haven’t yet.

See also the G-Bitch Spot

October 4, 2006

A great education experiment

(My readers will have to pardon that this post was temporarily removed from the site. I was working on an interview with Robin Jarvis of the RSD that I got and will post shortly, and didn’t want to play my hand unneccesarily.)

Well, school is allegedly starting at the 53 public schools set to reopen this fall, and good luck understanding the array of acronyms, start dates and regulatory variances coming out of the mess that the state has created by taking over some, but not all of the New Orleans Public Schools, and turning some into charters.

What is actually going on in the new Recovery School District? It is difficult to tell, because several of the teachers I’ve talked to who work in these schools are terrified that they will be fired if they talk to anyone. However, one teacher I know sent this e-mail out:

I don’t think I want any more surprises. I can’t believe this scenario any more, and the students haven’t even come to school yet to add to the drama. School offically begins for the Recovery School District this coming Thursday. Tomorrow, Labor Day, is my first day allowed into my school. The conditions beyond the F-word at the entrance of the school are being described as primitive by my principal. My little school house has been under a slow construction process to recovery from the flooding it sustained for a month in(detail deleted for privacy purposes) . As of Friday, there was no floor and no doors hung on the first floor. No desks, no books or any materials are anywhere. For weeks my roommates have tolerated my collection of teaching leftovers waiting in limbo in our living room area hoping to find a room of their own.

Meanwhile, I just completed my second week straight of seminars at a local university since they had to do something with the hundreds of teachers throughout the district in a similar situation. At night I’ve been reading professional books, preparing quarterly plans, and making lots of lists to prepare as much as possible to teach physical science, life science, and earth science. This past Friday morning I finally was able to have my first meeting just with members of my specific school. Many new surprises were revealed. The first one was, “Oh, and you’ll also have to teach 110 minutes of math at the end of the day to sixth graders.”

I am so disheartened. They just increased my workload by 25% and lessened my ability to accomplish much with this convoluted curriculum.

The rest was more of the same. This week I also had the opportunity to talk with Brenda Mitchell, president of United Teachers of New Orleans, as well as a public school teacher of 28 years who went into retirement rather than work in the new system.

Brenda Mitchell, UTNO 1

Lorraine Jones, former public school teacher 1

Looks like the state has done a heck of a job yet again with a city and a demographic that it wants to get rid of. Forget seceding from the United states- I am beginning to think that more and more that the people destroying New Orleans are not just in Washington but in Baton Rouge and Shreveport as well.

And, unfortunately, in New Orleans. I did this interview last December with Jim Randalls, education guru and co-founder of Students at the Center. Jim gives an explanation of the historical roots of the problems that we are facing.

Jim Randalls 1 2